A cyber attack has hit an ambitious project that sought to give ordinary Hong Kong citizens a voice in this weekend’s chief executive poll, with organizers scrambling to provide paper ballots to the tens of thousands wishing to participate in the mock vote.
The Chinese territory’s top political job will be decided by a 1,200 person election committee Sunday, but that hasn’t stopped many of the city’s seven million residents keen to take part in the University of Hong Kong’s civil referendum project. Beijing has promised the city universal suffrage by 2017.
Thousands of users logged online Friday morning or used the smart phone apps created by Dr. Robert Chung’s group at the University of Hong Kong to cast their vote, but pages didn’t load properly. Dr. Chung said an early-morning cyber intrusion appeared to disable their servers, and that the site had also been experiencing abnormally high hit rates that had overloaded their system, up to a million requests a second.
“I think there could be no other explanation than a cyber attack,” he said. “We don’t quite understand the motive,” he added.
The city is already rife with reports that China is interfering with Hong Kong politics, and some speculate the civil referendum’s result could embarrass Beijing by highlighting the gap between what the public wants and what the city’s 1,200 electors—mostly business and political elites—will choose. Dr. Chung’s activities have never made him popular on the mainland, especially last December, when a poll he conducted showed low levels of identification with the mainland among Hong Kongers. Pro-Beijing media were quick to accuse him of having “evil” political aims, being a “hateful western-trained dog” and more.
Such dislike of polls was repeated this week when a mainland propaganda official based in Hong Kong, Hao Tiechuan, called for the city to adopt laws to more strictly regulate pre-election political surveys, citing similar laws abroad that aim to prevent them from potentially swaying voters’ opinions.
Despite the cyber attack, over 14,000 voters had already managed to get into the system and vote by mid-morning. Dr. Chung said that voting—originally scheduled to end by 9 p.m.—would be prolonged through tomorrow, and that paper ballots were also being used as a contingency measure. At a polling station in Chai Wan this afternoon, 30 people lined up to cast their votes at makeshift cardboard booths, as bystanders watched and took pictures.
In an effort to prevent ballot-stuffing, each would-be voter was first required to present their Hong Kong ID card, the number of which on-site volunteers were recording by hand and on laptops. One on-site volunteer, when asked whether he was concerned the cyber attack might have made it harder to guard against ballot-stuffing, nodded. “It is so hard to guarantee,” said Alvin Yeung, a Polytechnic University student who signed up to volunteer after seeing an outpouring of Facebook postings urging people to support the referendum, “but we try.”